Central Montanans participate in “March for Our Lives” protest

Charlie Denison
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Community members gather in front of the Fergus County Courthouse Saturday afternoon, participating in the national “March for Our Lives” protest organized by the student survivors of the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Local protesters were standing up for the safety of America’s youth and to encourage the government to put an end to gun violence.

Photo by Charlie Denison

As hundreds of thousands walked the streets throughout the nation Saturday, protesting outside Washington D.C.’s Capitol Hill and courthouses from San Francisco to Boston, a small crowd of about 13 gathered in front of the Fergus County Courthouse, offering their support for the “March for Our Lives” movement created by survivors of the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

“I grieve for them and I grieve for their generation,” said Vernie Sweeney, one of 13 who stood out in the rain Saturday, “It’s their lives that are on the line.”

Sweeney said she admires the courage and is proud of the teenagers for taking a stand. She agrees with their points and wants to see common sense gun laws.

“I mean, if the guy who invented the bump stock thinks it shouldn’t be used anywhere but in the military, what is the matter with [our country]?” Sweeney said. “And arming teachers? Teachers don’t want to be armed. That’s ridiculous. I mean, really? That’s a reasonable solution?”

Rachel Stansberry, a Democratic candidate for House District 29, joined Sweeney and the others at the courthouse.

“I don’t want to take your guns, but I do want to talk about gun violence,” she said.

Others involved in Saturday’s protests shared Stansberry’s sentiments. Tom Wojtowick said he’d like to “limit arsenals, not do away with them.”

“Don’t take away my .22 because I shoot vermin: gophers, skunks, raccoons and feral cats,” he said.

Dean Martin, a Vietnam veteran, was also present Saturday. He said he doesn’t disagree with the Second Amendment, but something has to change.

“When I was in Vietnam, we carried M-16s, which are the same caliber as an AR-15. These weapons are designed to cause carnage. A friend of mine got shot in the hip with that kind of weapon and the bullet came out of his foot.”

Martin said he’d like to see more background checks and more laws restricting guns from getting into the wrong hands, as mental health is a major factor. This being the case, Martin said he’s particularly frustrated with the lack of resources for those who are indeed mentally ill.

“If mental health is a problem, what the hell are we doing stripping the money from mental health treatment? Give me a break.”

Something’s got to give, Martin said, because children shouldn’t be experiencing the same kind of trauma he experienced in a war.

“When I saw the videos the kids took from their phones in Parkland, it gave me flashbacks,” he said. “To think there are children who have to live with that for the rest of their lives – and they will – it’s just terrible. Kids shouldn’t have to live like that.”

Sweeney, Wojtowick, Martin and others gathered at the courthouse are members of St. James Episcopal Church. Their response was partly inspired by a statement made by the Episcopal House of Bishops calling for an end to gun violence.

“Many of us at St. James feel compelled to act and choose life as a faith issue,” said St. James Pastor Jean Collins, who also has a personal connection to such occurrences. “My son was an engineering senior at Virginia Tech during the massacre in 2007, when 33 children of God died. My son knew one who died, one who was shot and one who ‘saw things it would take more than a lifetime to forget.’ I admit I have skin in this game, but I hope I would support some legislative action regardless.”


Ripple effect

There is another reason people were gathered in front of Fergus County Courthouse Saturday, and it’s the same reason Central Montanans were speaking in Helena, Bozeman and outside the state. Kathleen Davidson, a former Fergus student, told her story in Oklahoma City, a story that took place on Dec. 4, 1986, a day she’ll never forget.

“I remember it was a short day because of the tournament, so we were all excited,” she said, “and I remember looking forward to French class – the last period of the day – because Henrietta Smith was the substitute. She was going to show us pictures of her trip to France. I was saving up to go to Europe at the time.”

When class started, one student was missing: Kristofor Hans.

“His books were on the table, but he wasn’t there,” Davidson said. “After a few minutes, there was a knock at the door and Kris Dengel opened it. It was [Hans]. She didn’t see the gun. I remember her saying something like, ‘I think he wants you’ to [Smith].”

Davidson remembers Smith going to do the door when suddenly there was a “big boom” and the smell of gunpowder.

“At first I thought it was fireworks, but then I realized [Smith] was on the ground, bleeding profusely. She was still alive, from what I remember.”

What happened next is a little fuzzy, Davidson said.

“I remember we were all standing by the wall opposite the door,” she said. “I remember looking down at [Smith] and seeing her watch us. Someone could have stopped and held her hand, but none of us did. We just ran like sheep following a leader. We had to step over her to get out of the room.”

Davidson couldn’t believe it, and as she tried to collect herself, she realized Hans had warned her.

“[Hans] told me something big was going to happen,” she said. “He’d been talking about it for two weeks, but he was never specific. He said Fergus was going to make national news. But I was 16. I didn’t know what he meant…I wish I could have put the pieces together.”

Hans was escalating, Davidson said. A friend of his sister’s, she’d heard he was struggling and exhibiting more aggressive behavior, but she never could have predicted this outcome.

She testified against him in court and, at the time, felt he deserved the sentencing of 200-plus years. Now that he’s free, she said she feels he has “paid his debt to society.”

“Rationally I feel that way,” she said, “but emotionally my 16-year-old self wants him to rot in jail.”


Healing the Wound

Nearly 32 years later, Davidson said she still experiences trauma, but thanks to the Parkland shooting survivors, she feels empowered to speak out about her experience for the first time.

“The students at Parkland broke down my carefully built up walls and got through to me,” she said.

On Saturday, Davidson shared her story for 5,000 people during Oklahoma City’s “March for Our Lives” protest. Her speech focused on how “enough is enough.”

“I simply don’t understand what’s so offensive about wanting to keep our children safe,” she said. “When did guns become more important than our kids’ lives? Come on, Congress. Come on, legislators. Let’s start working on this now.”

Davidson said it meant a great deal to share the effect this kind of tragedy has on everyone involved, especially now, when it happens so often.

“If I get a whiff of a mass shooting, I have to avoid the news if I want to be a functioning human adult,” she said.

It’s even harder when emotion is suppressed, Davidson added. People need to talk about these violent episodes. For this reason Davidson said she’s thankful for fellow classmate Mike Chase, who started a Facebook forum, “Fergus High 500,” for students of Fergus to talk about the impact the fateful day had on their lives.

“When I found out there was a group of people talking about this I felt invigorated,” she said. “I felt like I’d been walking around with a big bloody scar for 20-some years and all of sudden there were people saying ‘hey, I’ve got that scar, too.’”

Davidson dedicated her speech to Henrietta Smith and to Chase, who passed away last year.


Central Montanans stepping up

Davidson wasn’t alone Saturday. Stephanie Simpson – who was across the hall when Hans started shooting – talked to a crowd of 2,000 people in Bozeman.

“If I wanted to take a moment of silence for every person affected by gun violence we’d be here for a week,” Simpson said in her speech. “The conversations are starting. We are educating ourselves. We are stepping out of our comfort zones to cooperate, collaborate and we’re getting out there to disseminate.”

Simpson and Davidson had never told their stories in public before, and both liked how it felt. Wanting to keep the momentum going, they are putting together a nonprofit, www.aftermarch24.org, in hopes to help others heal their wounds, as well. After all, Simpson said, far too many are triggered by these senseless acts.

“Every shooting is a punch in the gut,” she said, “and they piggy back on top of one another. You don’t put your trauma down and get the next trauma. You carry the whole thing, and we cannot let kids do that.”

The trauma never goes away, Simpson said, nor do her memories of that nightmarish day.

“I remember looking out the classroom door after we heard what sounded like fireworks,” Simpson said. “I saw someone dragging [Vice Principal John] Moffatt into a classroom. He’d been shot. We went back to the classroom. Our school counselor came to the window and said ‘barricade the door.’ We tore the window out and escaped.”

What happened Dec. 4, 1986 still feels surreal, Simpson said, and remains something she can’t imagine anyone else having to experience. Davidson agrees, and that’s why they’re working together, wanting to do their part to prevent such heinous acts from happening again.

“Parkland galvanized us, and we are finally here to make lasting change,” Davidson said. “Let’s do this. Let’s fix this. Let’s keep the conversation going and get some common sense gun laws. Let’s talk about bullying. Let’s figure out how to be kinder. We all have to be more pleasant.”











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